The Band, “Stuff You Gotta Watch” from Jericho (1993): Across the Great Divide

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As the Band moved into its modern era, they began to take on more of the personality of Levon Helm — the group’s down-home, feel-good heartbeat.

A certain fascination with age-old mythmaking remained, as heard on originals like “Caves of Jericho” and “White Cadillac” — not to mention select covers including “Blind Willie McTell.” But they also were suddenly prone to settling into a celebratory groove, and staying right there.

“Stuff You Gotta Watch,” from the Band’s 1993 comeback album Jericho, stands as a stirring example of the latter, a song that seemed to draw out Helm’s Southern-bred party-time sensibilities. “I don’t fool with a lot of things that I can’t have fun with,” he’d once memorably said. “There’s not much reward in that.”

This impulse, and this song, tended to imbue the Band’s late-period concert appearances with an impishly extemporaneous atmosphere, expanding and further illuminating the soul-deep influences that girded 1973’s Moondog Matinee, even as it completed a circle back to their earliest days as a rowdy bar-band called the Hawks.

No, “Stuff You Gotta Watch” wasn’t as substantive as some of the things that emerged in the turn-of-the-1970s era that followed, but it made up for what it gave away by way of sheer conviviality. Credit, almost certainly, goes to Helm — who always seemed most in his element during these moments.

Listen as he expertly mimics the smirking lasciviousness of Muddy Waters’ legendary take, though without the twin-guitar might that Jimmy Rogers brought back then. Instead, fiddler Vassar Clements added a country-fried attitude on the studio version, even as horn players Bobby Strickland and Dave Douglas work as kind of honking Greek chorus (on sax and trumpet, respectively) behind fellow Band stalwarts Rick Danko and Garth Hudson.

And we might have left it at that, had Levon Helm not returned once more to “Stuff You Gotta Watch” for 2009’s superlative finale Electric Dirt — only this time with a stripped-down looseness. By then, alas, cancer had turned his voice into a reedy hoot. Yet, Helm was unbent, growling and barking with a randy charm even as the song rambled along a plucky, bluegrass-inflected path.

In this quieter, yet somehow more expansive setting, we’re also treated to another example of Helm’s enduring brilliance behind the drums, as he adds a series of remarkable accents to the song’s shuffle pattern. Ever the offhanded genius, he took a basic jump blues and made it timeless once more.

Just as interesting, though, was this: Despite this take’s having arrived in a moment when it was devastatingly clear just how much had been taken from him, Levon Helm remained someone who knew how to have fun. And the reward in that remains in the listening.

Across the Great Divide is a weekly, song-by-song examination from Something Else! on the legacy of the Band, both together and as solo artists. The series runs on Thursdays.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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